Wharfies employed by Australia’s largest stevedore, DP World, went on strike last week. About 600 workers took four days of strike action at the Melbourne container terminal, while hundreds more went on strike for two days at the Brisbane, Sydney and Fremantle terminals.
The workers, represented by the Maritime Union of Australia, are fighting for a new enterprise agreement. They’re demanding decent pay rises, a limit on the use of casual labour, and the maintenance of their current working conditions.
The company however has offered subpar pay increases, wants ‘flexible rostering’, and to get rid of income protection insurance. They are also trying to water down union consultation clauses in order to lay the basis for automation and future jobs cuts.
The Australian Financial Review said that the four-day stoppage in Melbourne alone caused major disruptions and cost the industry more than $10 million!
The strike action was called after negotiations between the company and the union reached an impasse. The chief executive of DP World has openly threatened the union saying that if they don’t come to terms with “the new commercial reality” the company will consider automating their terminals.
Other stevedoring companies are already operating fully or semi-automated terminals. This has allowed them to slash hundreds of jobs and undercut DP World to an extent. DP World are effectively saying that unless the workers accept lower wages and lesser conditions, they will follow their competitors and replace them with robots.
On a capitalist basis, employers will always encourage this sort of race to the bottom. The only way to combat it is to fight for a socialist plan for the waterfront.
While helping the big shareholders to rake in mega profits, deregulation has been a disaster for waterside workers. Thousands of jobs have been lost and casualisation is now rife. The Maritime Union of Australia itself is fighting for survival.
In addition to campaigning to maintain decent pay and conditions, the union needs to fight to bring the commercial shipping sector into public hands. On the basis of public ownership, and democratic control, the workers themselves could be part of deciding how and when to introduce automation.
Any workers displaced could be redeployed in other parts of the industry in a planned way. If necessary, retraining could be provided without the loss of pay. This is the alternative to capitalist chaos and the rule of the market that both the major parties support.
The dilemma the union faces is that it remains aligned with the Labor Party, the very party that set waterfront deregulation in train. Side by side with an industrial strategy to push back greedy employers like DP World, the union needs a political strategy to fight for socialist policies that will benefit their members.
With the dispute still unresolved, the union is now considering taking further strike action. They should broaden their demands to take up the issues industry deregulation has created and draw in workers from other parts of the waterfront. Future strike action should also be coupled with demonstrations to win public support and pressure the government to reverse deregulation.
By Socialist Party reporters